Book Review: Junction X
Erastes perhaps might be on a point of crossing over. Known for her gay romances, her newest, Junction X blurs the lines. Is it romance or is general fiction? Indeed, the book is under Lammy consideration not for "Gay Romance," but for the more general "Gay Fiction," a spot usually reserved for titles that do not adhere to genre rules.
And here, Erastes does break her own rules. Instead of her historical settings circa 1800s, the setting in Junction X is England in the 1960s. There are trains, London is a bustling metropolis, suburbia is sprawling, hiding the everyday lives of its inhabitants in a cloak of manufactured sameness. The book is about such conformity and the lives that people live under it. "How much do we know about other people?" the main character ponders, "The more I thought about it, the more confused I felt and the more I realised I knew nothing of what really went on behind other people's closed doors."
On the outside, Ed Johnson is like any other person in his neighborhood: a business man with a beautiful wife and two kids. His wife kisses him goodbye at the door every morning, his children are taken care of by a nanny, they have parties now and then inviting everyone in their neighborhood. It's nearly a perfect life. But underneath it, the relationship between Ed and his wife is icy; Valerie is cold while Ed is distant; there is no intimacy, they sleep back to back. Not knowing better, Ed easily accepts this. It's a rather simple life until he meets his next door neighbor Phil who shows him other options one drunken night during a family vacation. Their sexual trysts brings an awakening in Ed, something that both inspires and frightens him. Their emotionally abusive relationship ends abruptly when Phil moves for a promotion. Eventually, a new family moves in next door--a nice couple with a teenage son. It's with the teenage son that the story begins to move, lines get blurred, tragedies occur, veils are lifted, and lives are changed.
Erastes builds up the story with scenes of pure ecstasy, intermingled with identity crisis pangs leading to the inevitable downfall. It's the type of book you imagine the narrator telling you in a whisper, full of secrets: "The more I lie, I discovered, the easier it becomes." In that way, Junction X is an intimate story that touches on taboos because it's shared between the narrator and the reader.
But it's a Lolita-esque novel that lacks the complexity of Nabokov. That doesn't mean it lacks tenderness and eroticism: "There was no gentleness in that kiss; we were rocks, crashing against each other." Nor does it shy away from exploring the complex issues of love and lust. Can one choose who to love? Can one love too much? It's a claustophobic study of obsession and the lengths we go to hide our secrets.
Where Erastes falters is perhaps the vestiges of the M/M genre--conventions that might work there, but fail in more general fiction. The love explored is often idealistic. The only two characters that are focused upon are the lovers, leaving secondary plots completely absent. The prose at times can be clumsy, relying on cliches.
"This isn't really a story of my sexual conquest," say the narrator, yet it reads like it nearly. Here everyone has hard cocks with a strong emphasis in orgasmic sex and tightening pants and erections. (It could have been more explicit of course, and erotic sex scenes are not necessarily bad things). Additionally, while the book does try to steer far from the pulp M/M novels--by the end, it falls into the easily recognized tragedy of early gay novels (if you know what this means, you know how this ends).
Nevertheless, Erastes is a skillful writer. Her dialogue flows naturally, her plot moves briskly, and overall her story has its heart-wrenching moments of despair and beauty. While Erastes might not win the Man Booker any time soon for this jump into more general fiction, she knows how to keep her audience interested.
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